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Questioning How Media Coverage May Endanger Lives
Does News Coverage Endanger Lives?

Investor's Business Daily, April 29, 1999, Section: Viewpoint; Pg. A20

By John R. Lott Jr., a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. He is author of " More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Last week's horrific attack at Columbine High School in Colorado has at least temporarily changed the political climate on guns. Bad reporting is poisoning the public debate about guns and gun control.

Newsweek magazine reports that in the wake of the 13 victims who died, 50% of Americans polled now favor restrictions on handgun possession except by police and other authorities.

Other news stories revealed there were two additional bombings of public schools planned by students in Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Va., adding to fears. Yet the media's focus primarily remains on ''access to guns. ''

But such focus gives a distorted view of the relative costs and benefits of gun ownership.

The media have an old saying: ''If it bleeds, it leads.'' And this radically affects coverage of firearms. For instance, a death by shooting is much more likely to get news coverage than a case in which someone simply brandishes a gun and causes the criminal to run away. But the fact remains: guns are used for defensive purposes about five times as much as they are for crimes. The media refuse to tell that story.

The asymmetry in coverage goes beyond the crimes themselves. Take for example the justified news coverage accorded the heroic actions of the Columbine High School teacher who helped protect some of the students and was killed in the process. By Sunday morning, five days after the incident, over 250 news stories around the country had mentioned this hero.

Contrast this with other school attacks in which the crimes were stopped well before the police were able to arrive. In October 1997, a shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Miss., left two students dead. It was stopped by Joel Myrick, an assistant principal. He retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the shooter for about five minutes before police arrived.

A Lexis-Nexis search indicates that 687 articles appeared in the first month after the attack. Only 16 stories mentioned Myrick. Only a little more than half of these mentioned he used a gun to stop the attack.

Some stories simply stated Myrick was ''credited by police with helping capture the boy'' or that ''Myrick disarmed the shooter.'' A later story on CBS with Dan Rather notes that ''Myrick eventually subdued the young gunman.'' Such stories provide no explanation how Myrick accomplished this feat.

The school-related shooting in Edinboro, Pa., which left one teacher dead, was stopped only after James Strand, who owned a nearby restaurant, pointed a shotgun at the shooter when he started to reload his gun. The police did not arrive until 11 minutes later.

At least 596 news stories discussed this crime during the next month, and only 35 mentioned Strand. Once again, few described how he used a gun to stop the crime. The New York Daily News explained that Strand ''persuaded Wurst (the shooter) to surrender,'' while The Atlanta Journal wrote how he ''chased Wurst down and held him until police came.''

Saying that Strand ''persuaded'' the killer makes it sound as if Strand was simply an effective speaker.

Neither Myrick nor Strand was killed during their heroics. That might explain why they were ignored. Yet one suspects a more politically correct explanation - especially when the media ignore the defensive use of a gun.

In the midst of the political and media furor, we should remember the positive uses of guns. There are many other cases where citizens with permitted concealed handguns have stopped both shootings and bombings in public places.

Yet these heroes get even less attention than Myrick and Strand, especially when they have stopped the attacks before any victims have been harmed. If the heroes had not been there, one can be sure that these other incidents would have received national news attention because of the ensuing slaughter.

If the ultimate question is what will save the most lives, we can't look at just the bad things. We must also look for the bad things that don't happen because people are able to protect themselves. Given the current state of reporting, the ''public's right to know'' is being betrayed.

Now the media are talking about new gun laws. But they also are failing to look at many of the existing restrictions and what role they may have played in this tragedy. For the media, there seems to be only one story and solution, but that may be costing lives.

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